Should I learn Hebrew or Arabic next?

When I finished my manuscript for The Prince of This World, one thing that occurred to me is that literally ever since my colleagues at Shimer have known me, I have been “working on” that project. Around the same time I started, I also made some initial efforts toward another project: learning biblical Hebrew. I bought a textbook, lexicon, and Hebrew Bible, and I set about learning the alphabet… which I almost achieved before the realities of starting a new, teaching-intensive job intervened.

At that time, learning Hebrew seemed like the next logical step. Not only would it be useful to have access to the original biblical text, but I was also becoming increasingly interested in Judaism. That was another area of inquiry that became derailed, as the demands of teaching a diverse curriculum restricted my reading time. And then last year I got a further curve-ball when I was called upon to teach Islam, which resulted in a survey class on Islamic thought and a subsequent class focusing on the Qur’an. I’ve continued to read up on Islam since then — in fact, right now I’m working my way through a survey of Islamic law, as my “fun” reading.

So here’s my question: assuming I have some time to devote to further language acquisition, should I prioritize Hebrew or Arabic? Would doing Hebrew first prove at all helpful for Arabic (or the reverse, I suppose — learning French before Latin seemed to work fine)?

It should be clear that in both cases I’m more interested in reading classic texts than in, you know, talking to people. And with that in mind, what are some standard resources for learning classical Arabic?

8 thoughts on “Should I learn Hebrew or Arabic next?

  1. In part, it depends on what you mean by Judaism. The Tanakh is in the different variants of Biblical Hebrew. The Talmud is in Aramaic and Hebrew. The big medieval Jewish philosophers are largely in Judeo-Arabic (with really good medieval Hebrew translations done at the same time). So it largely depends on what aspect of Judaism you are interested in. I don’t mean to complexify the issue.

  2. Start with biblical Hebrew in earnest as at least the script is easier to get off the ground with and you can work with texts you are more familiar with and then, if you can alongside, at least get acquainted with the Arabic script to be able to transition more easily later.

  3. Classical Hebrew and Classical Arabic are related (they are both semitic languages), so learning one will definitely help you learn the other. And Aramaic and Hebrew are very close as well. Honestly, from my perspective, there is so much to do with the Bible and theory/philosophy — and Bible is such a big topic in American discourse — that I think it would be easy to crank out a bunch of really interesting stuff. But the same is probably true for Islam in American discourse. So: I don’t think you will lose either way.

  4. The Al-Kitaab series, now in its third edition, is the most developed, and most supported, system of teaching Arabic in the US. The vast majority of university and institute language programmes adopt it, so you would be well supported if you ever wish to complement self-study with a more structured language course.

    The series does have some weaknesses: the most common complaint from students is that it teaches them how to say “the United Nations” in Arabic before it teaches them how to order a cup of tea. As one might guess from that, common topics in the series are geared towards the largest demographic among students: those hoping for careers as future diplomats or intelligence analysts. Having said that, I have seen dedicated students, after three years of Al-Kitaab, move on to reading and translating classical philosophical and theological texts. Hence, the most important take away is the solid foundation in grammar. Although there are those in the trade of Arabic instruction who make much of the differences between so-called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), as focused on in Al-Kitaab, and Classical Arabic (Fuṣḥā), the grammar is identical and differences amount to little more than convention.

    As to your other queries, Arabic and Hebrew are more closely related than French and Latin, and though the Old Testament is older than the Qur’an, the same cannot be said of their respective languages. In fact, the rules of Hebrew grammar were established and recorded in grammatical manuals, mostly in Al-Andalus, after the proliferation of Arabic grammatical manuals, which served as a reference. In all cases, despite differences in script, the crossover value in learning one language after the other would be immense: at the end of a summer of only intermittently watching Israeli TV in Jordan, I could get the gist of what was being said, and also, though I have no idea of the accuracy of the Aramaic used in Mel Gibson’s The Passion, I recall understanding more than half of what was being said without subtitles.

    Best of luck with the language learning, regardless of with which you start!

  5. As an undergrad I learned both Koranic Arabic (from Thackston–it’s a green book and I think pretty standard) and Biblical Hebrew (from Gesenius, in German translation–I was an exchange student in Germany at the time) up to the point where at the end of four semesters of Arabic and two semesters of Hebrew I could read a few sentences in the Koran with a teacher guiding me and read the Bible on my own with a dictionary. Ten years on of course I’ve forgotten both, though I can still pick out letters when I see Arabic or Hebrew script. Based on that experience I can say the following:

    1) Biblical Hebrew is way easier. Fewer verb classes, smaller vocabulary, simpler syntax.

    2) As others have said, they’re related languages, so one helps you learn the other via cognates and the fact that the concepts of triliteral roots and verb classes transfer.

    3) They’re both hard. A lot harder than French; after two years of steady work you won’t be able to just pick up a book and read it.

    I suspect that I am pretty typical among academics in that I use classical languages almost entirely to recognize key words or reconstruct original quotations and tags with an English translation to hand, not to do real philology or even real extended reading in the original. Studying either Hebrew or Arabic hard for a year would allow you to do this, and I think it would be very useful.

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